Between Safe and Real
Fifteen-year-old Zoe Wilkes has ninety-nine problems, and a boring life ain't one. With two hungry siblings, an empty fridge, and a violent mother to tip-toe around, Zoe can't slow down enough to catch a breath. When she discovers Mama’s been reading her diary, Zoe realizes she has to stop writing in it. Trouble is, if she stops, Mama’s sure to think she’s hiding something, and will tear through her room like a tornado—again—to find out what. Her solution: write Mama-safe entries in the first diary, while writing her real thoughts in a plain-old composition book.
The more entries she makes, the fuzzier the line between safe lies and terrifying truths becomes, and it’s not long before Zoe fears she’s just as unstable as Mama. After all, the apple never falls too far from the tree. If there’s even a shred of truth to her safe journal, then maybe her real journal’s just a hot mess of made-up horrors. When things at home escalate, Zoe must face reality in order to keep herself and siblings safe. But facing reality means taking steps that could shatter her family. Can her friends, Cheryl and Nate, help her understand that love shouldn’t hurt and blood doesn’t make a family?
BUY THE BOOK
This may be a new journal, but nothing much ever changes. Mama's yelling at Daddy again—big freaking surprise. The moment she raised her voice, Bobby and Leesh took off, and I can’t say I blame them. If I weren’t grounded to my room, I’d have made myself scarce, too. Bobby’s under the back porch, probably trying to dig a hole to the center of the earth. I know because that’s his favorite spot to hide whenever Mama yells. Besides, I dare anyone to show me a six-year-old who doesn’t love the idea of digging a hole to the center of the earth.
I'm pretty sure Leesh is under the tree behind the house. Lately, she’s been spending a lot of time out there, lying on the grass and staring up at the leaves. I should probably ask her again if something’s bothering her, but the last time I asked, she told me to go away, huffed off to her room and slammed the door. I wonder if she’s about to get her first period. After all, I was twelve when I got mine, and she just turned thirteen. If that’s what’s going on with her, it makes sense she’s crabby.
Does it make me a bad person that I don't even want to know why Mama's screaming? All that matters to me is she’s not screaming at me. I know I’m ugly, but she makes it sound like I’m some kind of disgusting mutant. Sometimes, when I accidentally see myself in the mirror when I’m brushing my teeth or putting my hair in a ponytail, I think she’s right. My nose is crooked, and my eyes always have raccoon circles so dark you can’t even tell my eyes are brown. Not that it matters, since Mama says my eyes are the same color as Sammycat’s poop. She can be mean to all of us, but she only says crap like that to me. Until the day I die, I’ll never understand what I did to make her hate me so much.
Get out of my sight, Zoe. Looking at you makes me sick. No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend. What boy would ever be caught dead with you? I swear to Jesus on the cross, your hair’s the exact same color as old dishwater, and for the life of me I can’t understand why you don’t shave it all off. You’re so skinny, if you did shave it, everyone would think you had cancer. We could set up one of them online fundraisers and rake in the cash.
Honestly, I think Daddy's gone so much because he figures she'll yell at him the same as me if he's home. I get so mad at him for being gone all the time, but he has a family to support so I can't stay angry too long. I just wish he had a job where he came home every night like he used to instead of driving a semi and being gone for a week or more at a time. I wish I could disappear, too, but someone’s gotta take care of Leesh and Bobby. Besides, like Mama says, if wishes were fishes, the sea would be empty. I don't even know what that means, but it seems fitting, somehow.
Mama doesn't know I found out she's been reading my old journal. I took care to hide it some place I thought she'd never find it—way back on the top shelf of my closet, wrapped up in my favorite shirt from three years ago. When I came home from school one day last week, the diary wasn’t in the right place, and the shirt was jumbled around the diary instead of folded around it the way I do. It had to be Mama, because Leesh is too honest to snoop. She’s serious about her privacy and would never violate mine.
Bobby doesn’t even know about my diary, but if he somehow found out about it and got it in his head to look for it, he couldn’t reach the hiding spot. When I look back on how Mama acted between when I found the journal in the wrong spot and when I made my last entry, I realize she had been asking all sorts of nosy questions that fit with my entries. Do I have a crush on anyone—that kind of stuff.
She never asks me how school was or why I don't invite friends over. The only time she shows any interest in me at all is if she wants something or is screaming at me, so why in the world did she bother looking for my diary? What a stupid question, Zoe. Duh. She went looking for it to find proof I think she’s a shit mom, so she doesn’t have to feel guilty about the way she treats me. I'm glad I listened to my instincts that my diary wasn’t safe, and I never wrote about her in it. Thankfully, it was just full of stupid boring stuff, like what I had for lunch or that we had a substitute teacher in English.
There's no way she'll ever get her hands on this one. Every time I leave the house, it’ll come with me. I carry my backpack everywhere anyway, so she won't even notice I have another notebook in it. It’s a relief to finally have a place where I can be honest. I’m still gonna write in my old diary now and then, though. Now that she knows about the first diary, I know she’ll check it every chance she gets and if I stop writing in it, she’ll become suspicious I have a new one and will tear my room apart to find it.
I swear, I’m not being all dramatic with this kind of talk. It seems like at least once a month she gets mad and goes through my room, trashing it worse than a tornado ever could. With luck, she’ll get bored by all the pointless entries in my old diary and will stop snooping. Maybe then I can go back to hiding my journal in my room like a normal fifteen-year-old instead of having to sneak it out of the house under my shirt or in my backpack every time I leave.
If wishes were fishes...
* * *
There’s this girl in History, Cheryl, who’s been trying to talk to me. I seriously can’t think of a single reason she’d want to be nice to me, because she’s the exact opposite of me in every way. Smart as hell, blond hair that bounces when she walks, unlike my nasty dishwater hair. She’s popular and nice, and I can see why everyone likes her, but what’s the point of making friends with the popular girl? Keeping to myself is lonely, but it makes all the moving easier. I mean, it seems like such a waste of time to make friends when we’ll probably move again before the end of the year.
Man, seeing it written out like that makes me sound so ungrateful, when that’s not how I feel at all. Yeah, moving a lot is really, really hard sometimes, but it’s also worth it. Kids like Cheryl have been stuck in the same small town their whole lives and, honestly, I feel sorry for them. Me and Bobby and Leesh have seen so many interesting things and have more experiences in one year than they have in their whole lives. I wish I could take credit for that point of view, but all the credit goes straight to Mama.
She’s the one who helped me learn to love being what she and Daddy call a nomad, which is someone who’s truly free. Nomads don’t feel bound to any one place but jump around from place to place whenever they want. Mama says sometimes she and Daddy get wild hairs up their butts and they just know they’ll die if they don’t pack us up and chase a new adventure. I can’t say I understand that feeling, but I don’t care where we live as long as we’re together. And I’m all about doing whatever makes Mama happy.
Now, I could never imagine any other kind of life. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a group of friends, or heck, even just one friend, to hang out with, but even if I knew we’d never move again, I know I’d never fit in with the kids here. They’re all swimming in money and have been in their friend groups since preschool. They could never understand going to ten schools in ten years like I have. I learned years ago to say yes when kids ask me if my dad’s in the military because it’s easier than explaining how some families just like the way the wind pushes their backs and encourages them to explore new places. Well, it’s not like we’re living on the streets, but we don’t have money to spare, either.
But if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit out of all the houses we’ve ever lived in, I adore this one best and can almost imagine staying here until I go away to college. For the first time in ages, Leesh, Bobby and I don’t have to share a room, but that’s not what I love so much about it. I love how different it is. It has to be at least a hundred years old, and it’s no McMansion like so many other houses around here. It’s old and drafty, and you can’t even roll over in bed without the whole house creaking. I like to pretend I’m living in a haunted old house in the mountains. Don’t get me wrong, diary, I’m not complaining at all.
Who cares if we don’t have a swimming pool, or the hot water only lasts long enough for one shower? This old house is pure perfection, drafts, and all. Plus, I could get used to having my own room, even if I do get a little scared all alone sometimes. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s fun imagining what kind of ghosts would haunt our house and I end up scaring myself. I read once that ghosts don’t like to be in the same room as cats. Even though I know there’s no such thing as ghosts, I’m still glad Sammy likes to sleep with me.
Anyway, when Cheryl from History tries to talk to me, it’s easy to let my imagination run wild, especially since I have my own room now. I like to think about how awesome it’d be to invite a group of girls over for a sleepover. I’d tell them all about the ghosts that wander the house at night, and we’d eat entire mountains of popcorn and scare ourselves silly. But that’s just a fantasy, not reality. The reality is, even if Cheryl really is a nice person trying to chat with the new girl, I don’t have time for frivolous things like sleepovers.
Like Mama says, I need to keep my head on the ground and my shoulders out of the clouds. I think she’s mixing up two sayings there: Keep your feet on the ground and head in the clouds. But even mixed up, it still makes sense. I need to focus on the things that are real, like making sure the kids finish their homework, and helping Mama with the chores, especially when she has one of her headaches. There will be plenty of time for the extras, like going to the mall or a horror-movie marathon when I’m older. Plus, who knows how long we’ll stay here? The wind has a way of changing directions and taking us with it. As interesting as it is to move around and experience new places, it makes it hard to have friends.
Okay, enough stalling. I have English to do. Luckily, that's all I have for tonight, so maybe I'll get a jump on stuff that's due later in the week.
SYNT (see ya next time!)